The exact meaning of the term queer has never been definitive; pretty much the only thing agreed upon is that it meant “not straight”. In fact, “queer” diverged itself from “straight” quite some centuries before “straight” was even an established sexual orientation.
The word’s etymology set it up to be considered the “ultimate other” when it comes to sexuality, a beacon of difference despite not actually knowing what it’s different to. Difference, of course, is something we know people aren’t too good at understanding. As such, human nature began to work its way into the roots of the word, rendering it a derogatory slur by the time the 1990s rolled around. Alongside words like “dyke” and “faggot”, “queer” became associated with bullying and harassment in school, with many among older generations who still feel the toxic connotations carried by those words.
It is rather remarkable, then, that in modern times we see an effort being made to reclaim the word “queer”. Many argue that the term is a more inclusive and comprehensive alternative to the alphabet soup that is LGBTTQQIAAP (yes, this is the full acronym, which breaks down to: lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, transsexual, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, ally and pansexual). The logic is that, by reclaiming this inclusive term which is believed to encompass all those who are “not straight”, the community will assert power and ownership over a word they once feared in order to establish a more unified front. This movement began in the 1980s and has been garnering momentum ever since. However, as can be expected, not everybody is eager to be branded with a word that carries the weight of oppression and persecution.
In addition, the self-identification with “queer” is not as entirely broad as it’s made out to be; rather, it is a deeply personal choice which remains obscured by various obstacles. For one thing, bullying is not a distant memory for most members of the LGBT+ community, despite the progress seen in current day. Judging by the hate crime and legal inequality faced by those who identify as “not straight”, the desire to reclaim the pain of the past may prove to be too much for those who still face such hatred in their daily lives.
Furthermore, there is an argument to be made on the basis of erasure: by casting the blanket-term “queer” over the community, are we not then ignoring the unique identities which formed the unified and celebrated alphabet soup? It’s important not to toss someone an identifier that they did not ask for and do not even want, particularly when they have asserted their affiliation for an already-existing group of people (e.g. your lesbian pal may not necessarily want to be labelled “queer” instead).
Ultimately, it’s a call best left up to each individual member of the LGBT+ community. The choice to be labelled “queer” or otherwise alludes to an entirely subjective experience, one which must be approached with the utmost respect and tact. Remembering the heavy stigma and societal connotations of the word should serve as a social barometer of sorts when assessing the time and place to use it. As always, intent is key.